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Downton Abbey: Season One, Episode Six

“Papa, I’m sorry I disobeyed you, but I’m interested. I’m political; I have opinions.”

Very helpfully, the show opens with a title card telling us that it is May, 1914. Approximately nine months have passed since we were last with the household. The world is changing. There is an election happening and, this time, the rights of women, and especially their right to vote, is being debated.

Sybil is right in the middle of all the tumult, literally. Again, the generation gap becomes evident. Lady Violet is appalled that a young woman would get involved in politics. Robert is as well, but I get the impression that he more upset about the fact that Sybil is making her own decisions, not asking his permission or following his lead, before going off into the world. By behaving in this fashion, Robert is the cause of what happens next. Nothing is going to stop Sybil from hearing the results read, so she lies to Robert to go. It is Cora and her sisters who support Sybil’s decisions. No surprise, they are women.

It is also the women who look after Sybil and protect her after she’s been injured. Branson takes her to Isobel and then goes to fetch Mary. And, it is the women as a united front that face off against Robert after the accident. Sybil is simply wonderful at this moment, shouting down her father and defending Branson to the end. It is she, and Mary to a lesser degree, who save Branson’s job for him.

Sybil and Branson are an interesting pair. She’s young, idealistic and wealthy; he’s young, idealistic and working class. She proclaims herself political; he actually is. Watching her face as she talks to Branson, one gets the feeling that he is opening up Sybil’s world. Having been surrounded by conservative wealth all her life, he is beginning to show her that the world is a much bigger place than her small corner of Yorkshire. Sybil can’t help but respond to him.

Although she is caught up in the election, Sybil still finds the time to look after Gwen and continues to help her. Gwen is discouraged and downcast; Sybil just refuses to let her wallow. If anyone can make something happen by sheer force of will, it will be Sybil.

Mary’s secret, no surprise, is being discussed all over London even to the extent that Carson hears about it from a friend of his. Knowing as we do how fond of the girl Carson is, this news must have come as quite a shock to him. Not so much a shock, however, that he doesn’t instinctively know what to do with the information. He goes to Cora, not Robert. Carson understands who is better to handle such a situation.

Even worse, Lady Violet has now heard the news and we see where Mary has learned her honesty. Cora, who has been keeping this secret on her own for quite some time, confides in Lady Violet that the whole story is true. For the first time, we see what Cora is made of. She is understanding with her mother-in-law's shock and dismay, but she stands up to her and she defends her daughter knowing that she may be creating a rift in the family that cannot be repaired. Lady Violet eventually comes around in a lovely scene with Cora. Cora compliments her mother-in-law, probably for the first time; Lady Violet, visibly moved, responds that nothing is too good for family. The implication is, of course, that Cora is now included in that select group.

In spite of all the unpleasantness, salvation is in sight. In one of the greatest scenes of the entire series, Matthew and Mary finally confront how they feel about each other. They are so evenly matched; neither one of them has the upper hand and neither one of them gets to tease for too long. The kiss has been a long time coming, but well worth the wait.

Although we don’t actually see it, we soon learn that sometime after the kiss, Matthew proposed. Cora is relieved; Mary is unsure. She finally admits that she loves Matthew, but can’t marry him unless he knows the truth about Pamuk. For a family that keeps so many secrets, there is an extraordinary amount of honor and honesty flowing through them all.

The scene where Robert and Cora are in bed discussing their daughters goes a long way to explaining why Edith is the way she is. Her parents have already written her off and believe that the prospect of her caring for them is “ghastly.” On some level, Edith must be aware of her parents’ feelings. Yet, in spite of it all, Edith finally has some romance in her life. Although he is another man her elder sister has rejected, I get the impression that Edith genuinely likes Sir Anthony. He certainly likes her.

Mrs. Patmore’s problem is getting worse and is becoming an issue that the household is going to have to deal with. It’s easy to understand the dilemma. Most likely, Mrs. Patmore has been a member of that staff since she was a girl. The last thing Carson and Mrs. Hughes want is to let her go; however, their first responsibility is to the family and running the house. If Mrs. Patmore can no longer do her job, the situation is bleak.

Thomas is a character I struggle with as I can find nothing redeeming about him. We know he’s a bully, a gossip and a thief. Now, we learn that he’s also a liar as he sets up Bates to be accused of his crime. Karma being what it is, however, Thomas doesn’t get far. In the two years Bates has been in this household, he has earned the respect and the trust of those around him. Carson refuses to believe that Bates would steal the wine and, of course, wants to know who did. Bates, ever the noble gentleman, still refuses to rat Thomas out.

But, then we learn why. Until recently, Bates was not the man we now know. He confesses to the three people who mean the most to him about what happened to him in the past, including being imprisoned for theft. Bates’ language is telling; he doesn’t say that he was a thief, just that he was imprisoned for it. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and Anna are all shocked, but still refuse to believe the worst of this man. That Carson would allow Bates to stay on tells us a lot him; he will get to the truth and, until he does, he will still only think the best of Bates.

Anna, of course, is going to defend Bates from the rooftop even if he won’t admit how much he loves her. We finally get a bit more than longing looks. That almost kiss drives me crazy, but it is the perfect metaphor for where they are -- almost there. Closer, one hopes, now that Anna knows his secret.

William, on the other hand, is a simply lovely young man. We get a bit more of his backstory and learn that although he loves horses and wanted to be a groom, he became a footman because it is a better position and he wanted to please his mother. He and Mary have a conversation at the stables in which he is deferential, but not obsequious. Mary responds to this and begins to look at him in a friendlier way. It is she who works it out so that William can go home to visit his mother and she does it in the nicest way possible, not betraying any confidences, but getting her way in the end.

Even better is William’s conversation with Daisy. For the first time in a long time, we see someone talking to her who is not either shouting at her or manipulating her. He is sweet, gentle and truthful. No wonder Daisy responds to him and stands tall with Carson.

The thing I find most poignant about this episode is that while Sybil is growing up and romance is everywhere, from our vantage of history we know that the world is going to explode in only a few months time. I always leave this episode a touch sad; we are watching the end of an era.

Bits and Bobs:

— When you stop and think about it, doesn’t it astonish you that women have had the vote for fewer than one hundred years? It does me.

— We get our first hint of clouds on the horizon when Sir Anthony talks about how worrying the situation in Germany and Austria is.

— A borstal (Sybil’s lie to get to Ripon) was a type of reform school for young offenders. It was very cutting edge in its day, banning the use of corporal punishment and encouraging reformation and education in its inmates.

— The Hungry Hundred is a term for sailors from the Royal Naval Reserve who became members of the Royal Navy itself. Their concerts were known for showcasing lighter music, often with a sing-along included.

— The start of the grouse is also called the Glorious Twelfth. It is the 12th of August, the start of grouse shooting season and the traditional end of the London social season.

Well Said:

Woman in Crowd: “If you’re so keen on women’s rights, let a woman speak!”

Branson: “Politicians can’t often recognize the changes that are inevitable.” Not much has changed in the past century, heh?

Mary: “I was only going to say that Sybil is entitled to her opinions.”
Lady Violet: “No, she isn’t until she is married. Then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”

Robert: “Why all your causes so steeped in gloom?”
Sybil: “Because it’s the gloomy things that need our help. If everything in the garden’s sunny, why meddle?”

Mary: “I don’t care a fig about rules.”

Mary: “He’s made her proud. There are plenty of children in grander circumstances who’d love to say the same.”

Branson: “I may be a Socialist, but I’m not a lunatic.”
Mary: “I’m not sure Papa knows the difference.”

Bates: “Now go to sleep and dream of a better man.”
Anna: “I can’t. Because, there isn’t one.”

Lady Violet: “She reads too many novels. I mean, one way or another, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden.”

Lady Violet: “In these moments, you can normally find an Italian who isn’t too picky.”

Cora: “Thank you for not turning against her. I know that you have rules, and when people break them you find it hard to forgive. I understand that and I respect it.”
Lady Violet: “In this case, Mary has the trump card.”
Cora: “What?”
Lady Violet: “Mary is family.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.


  1. Probably my favorite episode of the series so far, in large part thanks to the long awaited Mary/Matthew kiss. Also loving Anna and Bates, although he is much too noble for his own good and sometimes I do want to just smack him. Just turn Thomas in! He soooo deserves it.

    I love the way the show treats the era it is set in. It's not just scenery, it's a character that everyone interacts with in their own, unique way. Some ignore modernity completely, others embrace it whole-heartedly. Robert seems to accept the changes that make his life easier (electric lights), while disliking those that threaten the style of living he's inherited (women's rights).

    Fabulous review, as per usual. :)

  2. Great review, Chris - you're really ripping through these! We've just seen the end of the third season here in New Zealand so I'll look forward to the reviews to come.

    Interesting you should say about your amazement that women have only had the vote for less than a hundred years, as what struck me when I saw the episode was how late it was in the UK. New Zealand was the first country to enfranchise women, in 1893, which seems like another era altogether. It was kind of weird to me that the post-Victorian modern era had dawned and still women didn't have the vote elsewhere.


  3. Mary is getting more likable with every episode. Previously, she said that she wouldn't get off a lame horse -- but she did in this episode, didn't she? And she was so kind to William but without braking a confidence. Lovely.

    I've been waiting for an upstairs/downstairs romance, and it looks like Sybil and Branson might just be it.

    Maggie Smith makes me laugh out loud at least three times per episode. She's marvelous.

    I just love that every episode begins with a closeup of a dog's wagging tail. I wonder why they decided to do that? They do seem to include shots of people from behind as they walk toward Downton in nearly every episode.

  4. Really enjoying this show, with one glaring exception : Thomas. As others have said, he seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and I'd be happy if he just went away, or better yet, got what he deserves. This period in history has always fascinated me, as well - so much trouble on the horizon, kind of just simmering in the background, getting ready to explode.

    I'm also liking Mary more and more. What she did for William, I think, shows us the kind of person she truly is. And, Maggie Smith just blows away every scene she's in. Such a joy to watch. Great review!

  5. I absolutely loved Cora's face when Violet said that thing about no one going down the aisle without a secret...


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